The first time I went to the Alamo Drafthouse was to see Sam Levinson’s Assassination Nation.
I knew about the Alamo Drafthouse for years. Founded in Austin, this chain of movie theatres is known as a safe haven for cinephiles. With several other theatres closing down, the opening of an Alamo Drafthouse in Brooklyn felt like a promise that the theatrical experience was not fading from New York.
And yet I’d been avoiding the theatre. Their decision to rehire Devin Faraci after he’d been accused of sexual assault told me that their safe haven for cinephiles was not a safe haven for cinephiles like me.
Then a year passed, and the show time was convenient. It had never really been a boycott anyway, just a casual avoidance. It made sense to go there for the first time to see a movie co-starring a trans woman. A new chapter of New York City movie-going, a new chapter for representation on-screen.
I was immediately disappointed upon entering their lobby. Right in the middle of their retro video rental stand was Woody Allen’s 1971 comedy Bananas. Nothing says we’ve learned from our sexual assault scandal like prominently displaying work from film history’s second most famous pedophile filmmaker.
But the anger I felt in the lobby was nothing compared to what I’d feel in the theatre.
Assassination Nation is a film in love with its own importance. It begins with the first of many American flags and a trigger warning montage that suggests a minimal understanding of the definition of trigger warning. (“Swearing” is not a trigger warning.)
What follows is an ultraviolent, hypersexualized, classic male-written/male-directed rape/revenge film. But unlike the men who popularized the genre in the 70s, Sam Levinson has a Twitter account. And with that, the knowledge to keep the rape attempted and get more creative in his misogynistic violence.
The vast majority of the film focuses on the brutality the women face. Levinson doesn’t understand that we’re already angry. We need not watch 90 minutes of abuse to root for a group of women to kill. We’re bloodthirsty to begin with.
Even the joy of seeing Hari Nef on-screen was diminished by how harshly her character is treated and a transphobic subplot about a “male” politician (played by a cis man) dressing in women’s clothing.
After the movie ended, I walked out of the theatre, picked up the DVD copy of Bananas, and threw it against the wall.
This is not how I’d start an analysis of Sam Levinson’s talked about HBO show Euphoria if my intention was to write a scathing review. I’ve more than abandoned any promise of objectivity, establishing myself as a crazy woman who wants to see men murdered and can’t be trusted in a video store.
Fortunately, objectivity is not my goal. Nor is a scathing review.
The fact is I love Euphoria. And I hate it. I’m not going to trip over myself trying to prove the objectivity of my complicated reaction because cis white men decided that objectivity was a tenant of criticism. It’s not. It never has been.
I can only review Euphoria as a gay trans woman who desperately wants to see herself on screen, who desperately wants to see her past, her present, and her potential futures. I can only review Euphoria as a gay trans woman who for the first time on television got to watch a cis girl fall in love with a trans girl. I can only review Euphoria as a gay trans woman who for the first time on television got to watch any girl fall in love with a trans girl.
Euphoria has a comically provocative beginning. After recalling the peace of the womb, our protagonist and narrator Rue says, “I was born three days after 9/11.” As the show often does, it cuts away, showing us footage of a plane flying into the World Trade Center.
Rue (Zendaya) is a 17-year-old bored with everything in life but drugs. She’s a regular teenager, trapped in the suburbs, annoyed with her family, alienated from endless high school drama, and struggling with mental illness. Drugs are her escape. Unfortunately, this escape led to an OD and a stint in rehab. The show opens with her returning home from this stay, less invested in staying clean than immediately finding her next fix. That is until she meets the new kid in school, an enigmatic trans girl named Jules (Hunter Schafer). They meet, they become best friends, and then, they become something more.
A lot of former Disney actors have played risqué parts to move on from a child star image. But Zendaya does more than prove she’s a mature actor. Her performance here is an emphatic declaration of her talent. Saying Zendaya is good on Euphoria is comically understating what’s happening on screen. Levinson and Rue ask so much from her as she gets high and sober, falls in love and heartbreak, works through OCD and possible mania. She even has to narrate, a device that so rarely works, but in her voice makes the show what it is. Every facial tic, every vocal crack, Zendaya is remarkable when the show is at its highest extremes and in its rare moments of quiet.
If Zendaya is the grounding center of the show, Hunter Schafer is its explosive force. Jules so easily could’ve been a sort of trans Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but Schafer turns her energy, her elusiveness, her “I could watch you forever” presence into a realistic series of defense mechanisms. Jules has lived in the world her whole life. She knows how to get what she wants and what she needs. Schafer is so good at one moment playing into Rue’s point of view fantasy and the next being a very normal human just trying to make it through the day.
And as good as Zendaya and Schafer are separately, it’s nothing compared to how they are together. Even if Euphoria runs for seven seasons, I hope these two actors work together on other projects. Chemistry is always rare, but chemistry like this is once in a generation. No matter where they are in the messiness of Jules and Rue’s relationship, the way these two actors play off each other is a privilege to watch. Also they both have such good smiles and when they direct those smiles at each other it’s really, really cute!
The show treats their love casually, but in the landscape of media, it’s groundbreaking. The only prior show to feature a queer romance with a trans woman played by a trans woman was Sense8 and that begins with the characters coupled. Emmy-nominated web series Her Story is really the only piece of media to show a woman, any woman, falling in love with a trans feminine person. That’s all we had. One web series deemed too niche for any network, even after an Emmy nomination. Until now.
Because oh how Rue loves Jules. The first few episodes of the show are painful (and adorable) as Rue fights her ever-growing crush, even helping Jules take naked photos for the guy she’s texting. The whole time Jules flirts and Rue melts. And then, after a dramatic episode where Jules’ crush falls apart, they lie in bed, the camera swoops around them as they cuddle. Every time it goes under the bed it reveals a new scene, laughing at the carnival, laughing by the lockers, the first night they lay in bed together, and then, back in the present, they kiss.
This isn’t a happy ending. It’s unclear how much Jules loves Rue and how much she likes the comfort and attention. It’s unclear how much Rue’s love is just displacement of addiction feelings. It’s complicated, but still a joy to watch, largely because of the two actors. And because of how rare it is to see a relationship like this on-screen.
During that first night together, the one we see again briefly in this climactic, visually inventive montage, the show features another rare representational milestone. Jules is lying next to Rue half naked. We can see the outline of her genitalia through her underwear. This is radical. I’ve never seen this before. Correction: I’ve only seen this before in real life when I’ve been lying in bed next to someone in my underwear.
We also see her casually inject herself with hormones.
These moments, Jules’ moments, Rue and Jules’ messy love story, may be what I care about most, but they are not the entire focus of the show. It’s an ensemble, each episode focusing on a different person at Rue’s high school, including Nate, the violent quarterback who turns out to be Jules’ internet crush. The best of these other storylines focuses on Kat, played by another phenomenal actress, Barbie Ferreira. When the show begins, Kat is just the fat friend in the cool group. She’s a little too nerdy, a little too nice, and an easy punching bag for her friends. But after losing her virginity, Kat begins to own her sexuality, and herself. She begins camming, and completely reinvents her identity. All of the storylines are explicitly sexual, but Kat’s feels like it belongs to her, even when she loses control. Again, a lot of this can be credited to Ferreira’s performance.
Throughout all these storylines, Levinson reveals his strengths as a filmmaker to be visual. Like the flourish during the kiss scene, he’s always pushing the formal boundaries of what a show about a bunch of teenagers can be. Sometimes his constant camera movements can be annoying, like when he flips upside down again and again to signify the characters are getting high. But more often than not I admired the style of the show. It’s bold and weird and sometimes silly, but almost always interesting. Along with directors Augustine Frizzell, Jennifer Morrison, and Pippa Bianco, and a quartet of male cinematographers, Levinson has created a show that truly looks, and feels, like nothing else on TV.
But for every moment I love, every actor I adore, every formal choice that thrills, the show does something that breaks me. During the pilot, these missteps made me mad. Now I just feel sad. It’s devastating to watch a show that is both everything I want to see on TV and everything I don’t want to see on TV all in one. And I can’t help but connect those elements, the things I don’t want to see, back to the writer of the show, the director of most of the show, and the creator of the show, Sam Levinson.
I think conversations about nepotism are generally misguided. The child of a famous director doesn’t have significantly more privilege than any other rich kid whose parents go to the same country club. The film and TV industry is incredibly imbalanced. The only reason I was able to make my senior thesis, one of the cheapest in my NYU class, was because I was poisoned by a major drug company and sued them for what would eventually be the budget of my short. And compared to your average non-NYU student, I grew up very privileged. The best, and queerest, script in my class was never made because the filmmaker couldn’t find the money.
This is all to say that it’s not deeply important that Sam Levinson is the son of Barry Levinson, the director of Rain Man, Wag the Dog, and Sam’s first mainstream produced screenplay, The Wizard of Lies. It is, however, important to look at Levinson’s background overall. Sam Levinson is a cis straight white man who grew up in the skewed world of Hollywood. And it was under these conditions he struggled with drug addiction, going in and out of rehab and halfway houses throughout his teen years.
Levinson decided to filter his experiences with addiction through a character who is a middle class queer black girl with a single mom. And I commend and celebrate this decision.
I’m less enthusiastic about his decision to be one of the few showrunners across all television networks to write alone without a writer’s room. For a show that’s structured episode to episode around various characters, many with marginalized identities, this decision is especially baffling. And egregious.
When you have the experiences of people with marginalized identities distorted through a writer who doesn’t understand them you end up with an uncanny reality. One moment, a trans girl is saying she thinks having sex with men validates her womanhood, a common experience of trans women across orientations. But then in several other moments the men who have sex with her are treated as if they’re secretly gay, a common transphobic stereotype that literally leads to trans women being murdered.
Often these distortions are confusing and hard to quantify. Since the writer is attempting to replicate a reality they’ve observed, you end up with something that feels authentic and inauthentic all at once. If you try to explain it, you might fail. If you want to justify it, you probably can.
But there are obvious textual missteps made throughout the show, most obviously with Nate and his father Cal. They share a secret. They’re both attracted to trans women, and men, and, most specifically, penises.
During the first episode, Jules is scrolling through Grindr when she comes across a profile named DominantDaddy. He says he’s looking for “twinks and femboys.” Jules, of course, is neither of these labels, so it’s confusing why his message excites her, especially if one of her main reasons for casual sex is validation of her womanhood.
DominantDaddy turns out to be Cal and when Jules meets him at a motel he warns her about being in the closet, an odd moment in part because Jules is so far into her medical transition, the closet long behind her. He tells her she can either live her life free and open or, he says, “You can stay in a town like this, end up like me. Living your life out of motel rooms.” Then he shoves his thumb down her throat.
With Jules on her stomach, he rips her tights, leans over her, and inserts his hand into her mouth until she gags. “Spit,” he instructs her. While he aggressively fucks her, we stay on Jules’ tortured face. Then we cut to a wide shot where we see everything. It’s a brutal scene. And while not unrealistic, it’s still a pointed choice to feature a scene like this as one of the first for a trans character.
But beyond the potentially gratuitous nature of the rape scene (she’s underage, so whether or not you view the sex acts as assault, it is rape), Cal’s speech is the first of many times being attracted to trans women is compared to being attracted to men.
The Internet has joked a lot about Euphoria‘s obsession with penises, but this obsession is not simply about the number of dicks on-screen. The real problem is how genital-focused attraction is presented. Nate, who has adopted the same preferences as his father, hates being in the men’s locker room, because he can’t help himself from staring at other men’s penises. Suddenly the decision to show Jules’ bulge feels less groundbreaking and more objectifying.
I want to imagine the show is just making a statement about the shame straight men face for dating trans women. But this is invalidated by the fact that Cal does have sex with men. We see this in his Grindr profile. We see this in the sex tapes he creates from his escapades. And we see this when he meets up with Minako, another person from Grindr. Minako has a dyed blonde undercut and wears jewelry and a skirt. He’s potentially genderfluid, but the actor who plays him, Sean Martini, is a cis male. If Levinson truly does care about casting trans people as trans characters, we can assume Minako is a man. (This assumption may be inaccurate though considering a cis male is cast to play Jules in flashbacks.) Still it’s confusing when he asks Cal whether his kids are boys or girls, something a queer person who plays with gender presentation probably would not ask. It also feels off when he asks Cal, “You want a popper?” instead of “You want poppers?” While not important compared to the other representational issues it still highlights the limits of a cishet writer telling these stories on his own.
Of course, Cal and Nate might be bisexual, but the show does not handle their stories with the nuance to suggest this. Instead the show has Jules say to Nate, “I think you’re a fucking faggot just like your daddy.” Again, I can make excuses. Maybe Jules just wanted to say whatever she could to upset Nate. But it feels unlikely that Jules would dismiss her own gender even for a dig. No, what’s much more likely is Levinson simply doesn’t understand gender and sexuality, and, furthermore, doesn’t understand what’s at stake presenting a story like this. Straight men feeling insecure about their attraction to trans women leads to violence. It leads to many of the murders of trans women, mostly trans women of color, that happen each year.
It’s especially jarring in contrast with the first season of Pose, which spent a significant amount of time humanizing and accurately presenting a cis straight man drawn specifically to trans women. That show was nuanced, asking questions, providing no easy answers, but always affirming that trans women are women. So many of the problems with Euphoria would have been resolved, if like Pose, trans women had been involved in the making of the show. Even their trans consultant is not a trans woman, but Scott Turner Schofield, a trans man.
There are further issues beyond the show’s complicated trans representation. Euphoria, like lots of movies and TV shows, especially those created by men, heavily sexualizes its teenage characters. The cast itself is not made up of teenagers, the main actors ranging in age from 20 to 24. This is a common practice, but it’s still worth mentioning. When a show as graphically sexual as Euphoria presents people in their early 20s as teens it makes a statement about what teenagers look like. It’s especially troubling when the actors are objectified as they so often are here.
During the character introduction for Nate’s girlfriend, Maddy, Rue says Maddy had “sex” with a 40-year-old man on vacation when she was 14. Rue says, “in retrospect it seems kind of rapey and weird but honestly she was the one in control.” Rue is not necessarily a reliable narrator, but the decision to have actor Alexa Demie, who is 24, also play herself at 14, does little to suggest the show disagrees with Rue’s assessment.
Beyond the way sexuality is presented, constant eroticized images of supposed teenage nudity, one might say the actual subject matter is simply realistic. But this is false. After the premiere, the New York Times released an article that counters the entire premise, stating that never before have teenagers had less sex or done fewer drugs. “They even wear bike helmets,” the article comically adds.
In episode one, Jules says to Kat, “Bitch this isn’t the 80s. You need to catch a dick.” Within two sentences the show suggests a false idea about shifting teenage sexuality and has a trans girl equate straight sex with penises.
There are other things about the show that grate on me. Like having teenagers in 2019 dress up as Romeo + Juliet for Halloween or excluding pretty much any mention of Rue’s queerness beyond Jules. But I’ve tried to focus on issues that feel less like personal annoyances and more like actual concerns. I’m not trying to attack this show. Again, I love this show. But these problems upset me because I think they’re actively dangerous.
Except the poppers line. I’ll admit that was a nitpick.
I know my standards are high. I know that while coming-of-age stories about complicated teenagers definitely appeal to me, movies and TV shows with a lot of brutality do not. I know that part of my reaction to Euphoria is connected to how rarely I get to see myself on screen, and how deeply I wish the hints I do get were perfect. I know that the show might just not be for me.
But perhaps my desire to see honest representation isn’t the reason I hate Euphoria. Perhaps it’s the reason I love it. Perhaps it’s the reason you love it. Even if you aren’t a trans woman seeing aspects of your life on screen for the first time, you are still a person seeing aspects of trans women’s lives on screen for the first time. You are still seeing a fat teenager cam and own her sexuality. You are still seeing a queer black teenager battle drug addiction with cynical wit.
We can debate the actual quality of Euphoria, but what’s undeniable is Sam Levinson is writing about people most of the film and television world has ignored. After two failed movies focusing on cis white people and one mediocre HBO movie about an old cis white guy, Levinson discovered what Hollywood at large still hasn’t.
Everyone wants to see new faces on screen. Those new faces especially. And we’re willing to settle.
You can call your freak show progress and still sell tickets to the general public.
We freaks will call it representation.